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The Night They Came to Murder My Grandfather

On Good Friday, April 14, 1933, Adolf Hitler’s SS smashed down the door of John Heartfield’s ground floor Berlin art studio. My grandfather escaped their attempt to arrest and murder him by jumping through his French door windows to the alley below. Badly injured, he hid for hours in a trash bin as Hitler’s storm troopers searched for him, threatening anyone who might help him.

One month earlier, using voter suppression, propaganda lies, and violence, Hitler became the undisputed leader of Germany, even though six out of ten Germans who voted in the 1933 national election did not vote for the Nazi party. A compromise with a small party gave the Nazis the seven percent needed to win control of the Reichstag (German Parliament). Hitler’s dictatorship quickly followed. He immediately outlawed everything that did not support the fascist agenda of the Nazi party.

Why A Pacifist Artist Was One Of Hitler's First Targets

Why would Hitler send his SS after John Heartfield so quickly after taking power? My grandfather was a pacificist who loved animals and shunned violence. He never threw a bomb, threatened to use a gun, or engaged in conspiracies. He was an artist who used his “art as a weapon“ against fascist propaganda and was known as the founder of anti-fascist art. His hatred of injustice and blind allegiance was his crime, one that warranted a death sentence in a fascist state.

Freedom is fascism’s first victim. The freedom to choose. The freedom to question. The freedom to create.

Staring at The Face of Fascism

John Heartfield lived and worked in the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of Berlin for many years. He created Dada masterpieces with George Grosz and was great friends with Bertolt Brecht. From 1920 to 1929, he was a partner and graphic designer in a Berlin publishing house. Berlin advertising agencies offered him high-paid positions because of his groundbreaking work in typography and book jacket design.

But when German democracy spiraled into fascism, he was forced to walk across the Sudeten Mountains to Prague. Working day and night from 1930 to 1938, he created an incredible 240 works of art (AIZ magazine covers) that were a blow-by-blow critique of fascism and The Third Reich. In 1938, when the German army invaded Czechoslovakia, John Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.

At the end of World War II, the world witnessed the horrors that always result when fascism infects democracies. Untold millions in Germany, Italy, Spain, and later in Russia suffered and died. Most of humanity believed leaders with a fascist agenda could never threaten a large, vibrant democracy again. But, today, the leaders of one of the two American political parties unconditionally worship a former president who sows division, revels in lies, and openly supports the attempted violent overthrow of a national election for his personal acquisition of power and wealth. When an ultra-conservative like David From, a George W. Bush speechwriter, uses the word “fascism” in his Atlantic article (July 13, 2021) to warn us what’s happening, it may already be too late. 2020 was a rehearsal. We must pull back the curtain on the horror show that’s coming.

An Artist Painted with a Broad Brush

In the 1920s, artists worldwide believed communism was humanity’s best hope for equality and fair justice. Along with a host of noted German luminaries, he joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1919. The KPD was Germany’s best political hope to defeat the rise of the Nazi party. But John Heartfield said he was never a political party functionary. Stalin’s purges murdered many of John Heartfield’s closest friends. And, later in life, my grandfather was persecuted in East Germany by the same form of government for which he created one of history’s most iconic political symbols in 1928.

John Heartfield is an Inspiration to Artists Worldwide

Events and organizations ask me to give presentations on my grandfather’s life and work around the world. Soon, I’ll speak to the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) in the UK and the Kolaj collage artists’ residency in the United States. After I talked with the first group of artists in the Kolaj residency, I received an email from the residency director. Her words detailing how my presentation had inspired her are the reason I continue to spread my grandfather’s message- freedom-loving people must constantly challenge those who spread hatred, lies, conspiracies, and division.

John J Heartfield
Curator, The Official John Heartfield Exhibition


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